Surviving suicide: A Summit County mother shares her story
KEYSTONE — Heather Gard named her son Toby because it means “bringer of light.”
“His smile would light up the room and bring comfort and smiles to the rest of the room, whether that was to a newcomer or whether that was to the classroom in general,” Gard said at the “Voice of a Grieving Mother” event Wednesday, Nov. 11.
Although many people saw the light in Toby, he struggled to see it in himself, Gard said. On April 20, Toby died of suicide at age 16.
“I just had this feeling I needed to go hug him, and I did,” Gard said about the night her son died. “Rather than standing up like he normally did, he stayed on the bed. I wrapped my arms around him, and he said, ‘Mom, I just don’t know what to do.’”
“I didn’t know,” Gard added. “I didn’t know to ask him if he was feeling suicidal.”
Since Toby’s death, Gard and her family have had to grieve while the world begrudgingly navigates the novel coronavirus pandemic. Because of the pandemic, Gard has not been able to hold a funeral or memorial service for her son.
In the meantime, Gard has been dedicated to raising awareness about suicide at events like the one Wednesday night, which was hosted by Building Hope Summit County and SpeakUp ReachOut, a nonprofit dedicated to suicide prevention in Eagle Valley.
When someone dies of suicide, it’s easy for loved one’s to ask “why?” Gard and her family have come up with many potential explanations for Toby’s death, ranging from concussions because of sports to potential recreational drug use.
• Colorado Crisis Services: 844-493-8255 or text “talk” to 38255
• For life-threatening emergencies, call 911
However, one circumstance sticks out the most in Gard’s mind: the coronavirus pandemic. Like many parents, Gard and her husband encouraged Toby to avoid in-person social interaction during the shutdown.
“He often said to us, ‘I’m not doing well. This isn’t good for me. I need to get out and see my friends,’” Gard said. “We said, ‘Well, you know, you’ve got electronic contact with your friends. All the research is showing even going out with one person can cause a chain reaction. Think about your grandparents.’”
Toby died two days before the statewide shutdown ended. Gard can’t help but think the pandemic contributed to her son’s struggle with mental health.
“If we were not under these extraordinary circumstances, he’d be here today,” she said.
A community copes
Toby is far from the only person to die of suicide during the pandemic. Since it began in March, seven people have died of suicide in Summit County, which is three more than died in all of 2019.
Because of the heightened awareness around the issue, groups like Building Hope and SpeakUp ReachOut have been working around the clock to address the issue. After Gard shared her story Wednesday, the organizations hosted a panel discussion about suicide prevention and awareness.
The discussion focused on the experience of survivors like Gard and Frisco Town Manager Nancy Kerry, who lost her son, Dustin, to suicide in 2013.
Both Kerry and Gard said the most important thing for other people to do is to share words of kindness. While survivors might not always respond, those words help them get through the day.
“Don’t be afraid of saying anything,” Kerry said. “It’s very helpful no matter what you say. You can’t make it worse. You can’t really make it better. So don’t worry, just say something.”
Dr. Casey Wolfington, an Eagle Valley-based psychologist and the Clinical Director of the Bright Future Foundation, said survivor’s guilt is very common among those who have lost a loved one to suicide.
“One of the things that happens when we experience any type of trauma is that we try to have some level of control,” she said. “One of the ways we control things is to blame: blaming others, blaming the person who has died and blaming ourselves.”
Wolfington said it’s important for survivors to remember that those feelings are part of the healing process and that suicide and grief are complex.
“It is incredibly rare in life, in any circumstance, that one event leads to another,” she said. “It’s really never two plus two equals four. It’s a real incredible mix of complexity. It’s really important to recognize that when we’re having blame, guilt or shame.”
Local organizations provide resources
As the community grapples with the pandemic, local organizations have worked to provide resources to help prevent suicide and support survivors.
The Summit School District offers social emotional learning curriculum starting at the elementary school level. Classes involve lessons on suicide awareness, depression and mental health at middle and high school levels.
Connor Catron, a social worker at the district, said staff is also prepared to intervene when students are struggling.
“Our biggest goal is that every student has at least one trusted relationship with an adult,” he said. “That they have one person at least that they can go to, and really have that strong connection with, that can really guide them through some of these hard times.”
Catron later added that the district is working to encourage peer-to-peer support among students through programs implemented at the high school level. Catron said the goal is to encourage students to ask one another if they’re OK and provide resources for each other.
Outside of the district, the community has resources through Building Hope. Executive Director Jen McAtamney said the nonprofit has created grief support groups for adolescents and adults. People can join the group through the nonprofit’s website at BuildingHopeSummit.org.
The nonprofit also offers connectedness events, which aim to bring the community together and foster support. And Building Hope is in the process of creating an informal peer program, which will launch in late November, McAtamney said.
One of the most important resources, however, is each other. Gard said she is always available to talk to those who are struggling with their mental health.
“If you need to talk, I’m here. Call me,” she said. “I would rather spend some time talking to somebody who maybe is feeling like they could have done more or is maybe feeling like they could go down that path. I am always here.”
Summit County has a wide variety of resources for people struggling with mental health. According to the Building Hope’s mental health navigation page, people can start with these resources for help:
- If you are looking for a therapist, visit BuildingHopeSummit.org for a list of local therapists.
- If you are looking for medication for mental health, call Mind Springs Health at 970-668-3478 or the Summit Community Care Clinic at 970-668-4040.
- If you are looking for therapy for a person under 18 years old, call the school based health center at 970-368-1134 or contact the child’s counselor at the Summit School District. Both Mind Springs and the care clinic offer therapy and behavioral support in addition to medication for mental health.
- If you are uninsured or underinsured for mental health care, contact the Summit Community Care Clinic or Mind Springs Health, which offer care on a sliding scale. Building Hope also offers mental health scholarships for up to 12 sessions, call 970-485-6269 for more information.
- Colorado Crisis Line: call 844-493-8255, text “TALK” to 38255 or chat at ColoradoCrisisServices.org
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: call 800-273-8255 or chat at SuicidePreventionLifeline.org/chat
Editor’s note: Mind Springs Health no longer operates a crisis line. That number has been removed above.
- Mind Springs Health: 970-668-3478 or MindSpringsHealth.org
- Colorado Crisis Line: ColoradoCrisisServices.org
- Safe2Tell: 877-542-7233, Safe2Tell.org or download the Safe2Tell app to make a report
- Building Hope: BuildingHopeSummit.org
- Summit Community Care Clinic: 970-668-4040, SummitClinic.org/index.php/care-services/behavioral
Summit School District psychologist contacts
- Summit High School: Anna Howden, email@example.com
- Summit Middle School and Snowy Peaks: Anita Ferrell, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Upper Blue, Breckenridge, Silverthorne and Frisco elementary schools: Audra Larcom, email@example.com
- Summit Cove and Dillon Valley elementary schools: Robin Ackermann, firstname.lastname@example.org
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As the Summit School District prepares for all online instruction, adults are focusing their attention on the health and well-being of the students.